Women take a hit in the HBO drama's latest crime spree.

By Clarissa Cruz
Updated April 27, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
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The beating death of a pregnant stripper barely out of her teens. The brutal rape of a doctor after she’s dragged from her car into a barely lit stairwell. A young hoodlum getting a bloody, protracted bludgeoning with a golf club. No, this isn’t a roundup of last week’s headlines from the New York Post — it’s a catalog of recent scenes from HBO’s lionized hit The Sopranos. Though the show’s New Jersey mobsters have never been portrayed as cuddly, this recent outbreak of violent episodes has come as a harsh reminder that Tony and Co. really are gun-toting thugs at heart.

Most viewers don’t seem to be covering their eyes: Ratings for The Sopranos are at an all-time high, with more than 5.5 million households tuning in each week. But after the one-two punch of therapist Jennifer Melfi’s March 18 rape and made man Ralphie’s April 1 attack on a coltish stripper, even loyal fans are cringing at the mere hint of blood. (During the April 8 installment, how many of you thought Tony was going to bring the bat down on Angie’s dog instead of on her car?) ”…an honest depiction of brutality has always been one of the show’s hallmarks,” noted USA Today’s Robert Bianco, ”though the assaults have usually been aimed at men.” Not anymore.

The shift has not been greeted with a Mob-style code of silence. A group of New York pols reportedly boycotted an April 3 press conference for the New York State Assembly’s film-fund initiative because the actor who plays Ralphie, Joe Pantoliano, attended. In addition, New York state senator (and Italian-American activist) Serphin R. Maltese, a Queens Republican, is encouraging his constituents to cancel HBO in protest. ”People have become inured to brutal treatment of men, and [The Sopranos] has taken a turn and decided that it’s much more dramatic to do it to women,” Maltese says. Then again, Maltese also calls for dissenters to refuse to patronize HBO sponsors…even though it’s a pay-cable channel without any advertising. (HBO, a division of EW parent AOL Time Warner, reports neither a significant drop in subscriptions nor a rise in complaints about recent episodes.) The show still draws the ire of groups like the American Italian Defense Association, which filed a suit April 5, claiming that The Sopranos insults Italian Americans. (HBO counters that the show is ”an extraordinary artistic achievement.”)

Sopranos creator David Chase is prepared to go to the mattresses to defend his series. ”People should understand that we’ve been killing people on the show for three years. This is the first time it’s happened to a woman,” he says, adding that the explicit, bloody scenes of violence are necessary to convey the Mafia’s brutal nature and the enormity of its crimes. ”Of course, it was graphic and hard to take — that’s the purpose of it.” He adds that incidents like the attack on Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) help to underscore the character’s choices. Since Melfi makes a ”highly principled, difficult decision to…not avail herself of the easy vigilante justice,” says Chase, ”in order for the audience to really feel the weight of that decision, you had to see how badly she was violated.”

Bracco, who reportedly injured her arm during the shooting of the rape sequence, believes that the show’s grittier scenes are part of its message. “We’ve been very courageous in showing the violence for what it is and not glorifying it in any way,” she says. “It is the life of the Mob. It is despicable, and as much as we do love this family and these characters, I find it brave of David not to be afraid to show you what horrible people they really are.”

“The violence is hard,” adds Aida Turturro, whose character, Janice, was roughed up by Russian gangsters in the March 18 episode. “Do I feel it’s an accurate portrayal of a Mob family? Yes, I do.”

But students of the real-life Mafia aren’t so sure. While generally praising the show for its accuracy, wiseguys say the recent outbreak of violence toward women stretches the bounds of plausibility. “The creed that was always passed down to me was that you don’t lay your hands on females—it’s not manly or macho,” says Joe Pistone, author of Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia (which was adapted into a 1997 movie starring Johnny Depp). “I hung around with guys who had 20, 28 kills and never once in my presence did anybody raise their voice, let alone their hand, at a female no matter how mad they got.”

Still, Chase takes a whack at his critics with a swagger Tony Soprano might envy. “In a show that deals with the underworld, this is the first time a woman has been manhandled,” he says. “The evening news will give you more than that.” Badda bing.

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